Seminaries have made considerable progress in developing a contextual approach to ministry. But if there are two weaknesses in the models for that we use, it may be our near exclusive focus on racial and ethic differences and an implicit dependence upon urban assumptions for the way in which we discuss context.
As important as ethnic and racial differences are and even though an increasing number of people live in our nation's cities, the contexts in which a great deal of ministry is still done can't be successfully navigated without attention to factors that aren't embraced by those assumptions. Rural settings, in particular, can often pose challenges that are worlds apart from ministry in our cities or in suburban settings.
That came home to me yet again over the last two weeks. My wife and I drove through three communities in central Wyoming on our way home from vacation: Edgerton (pop. 195), Midwest (pop. 404), and Wright (pop. 1,807). All three communities are hundreds of slowly driven miles from Wyoming's major population centers. All three are completely dependent upon industries centered on coal, oil, and natural gas. The schools are small and understaffed. The buildings suggest a lack of resources, and even a brief trip into an isolated convenience store immediately establishes that the residents have lived there for a long time.
That picture is true across most of Wyoming. The state itself has just over 580,000 inhabitants. That's roughly 6 people per square mile and, believe me, a lot of those square miles are empty. By comparison, the state of Massachusetts has 600 times more people per square mile. Thanks to both size and density of population there is and always will be more economic opportunity in the one state than in the other and a stronger sense of connection with urban centers. I have relatives, for example, who live in Exeter, New Hampshire, but whose work worlds are oriented virtually and physically to the city of Boston.
By contrast, you won't see the residents of Edgerton, Midwest, or Wright on the streets of Jackson Hole or on the slopes of the Tetons. You won't find them dining at Wort's alongside Harrison Ford, who owns a ranch in the Jackson area. And they won't be flying out to other opportunities where a round trip airfare to Chicago O'Hare is over a thousand dollars. They are employed in industries that are increasingly controversial, but those are the only viable industries for hundreds of miles; and while a few might imagine other worlds and other kinds of work, I suspect that for most of the residents, moving to other parts of the country to do other kinds of work feels pretty much like moving to Mars.
The trip was quite an education and, as exacting as the driving could be, I was thankful for the experience. Here's what I relearned:
One, although we will inevitably break out the challenges of contextual ministry in categories that help us classify the needs of our churches, there is another sense in which we need to give attention to context in the absolute sense. That is, we need to recognize that there may be factors in the communities where we live that don't fit into neat categories.
Two, we need to shed the implicit formation that is part and parcel of being trained in urban-based institutions, where urban categories dominate. Denigrating or ignoring rural ministry isn't an option. As many people as there are in and around our cities, rural communities remain an important part of our nation's life.
Three, even if you don't end up serving in a rural community, get in touch with it. For far too many urbanites rural communities have become "fly-over country." Make it a drive-through reality. If nothing else, drive coast to coast on I-90 at least once in your life and take note of what you see and hear.
Finally, be prepared to rethink church. Contextual ministry is not just about including a variety of people in the kinds of churches we would have planted anyway. It's difficult to imagine most urban models working in any of the three communities in Wyoming through which we drove. The most important contextual question we can ask is, "What does living out the Gospel amount to in this place?"